Australia’s Free Childcare Program: NPR | Instant News


Michel Martin NPR spoke with reporter Conor Duffy about the Australian government’s decision to make child care free for parents during the coronavirus pandemic.



MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As more countries reopen businesses and services, or try, there may be a big obstacle – no child care. Parents across the country face the possibility of not being able to send their children to school or summer camps or other forms of child care for months to come.

In Australia, the government has taken a different approach – keeping child care centers open and making them free for parents for three months. Australia has fewer cases of corona virus – a total of around 7,000, with more than 100 deaths so far. But the country has experienced the same problem as the US when it closed to slow the spread of the virus.

To learn more, we call Conor Duffy in Sydney. He is parenting and education reporter for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. He said some Australians were surprised that the free childcare plan was approved by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a conservative who was seen as having a political style similar to President Trump’s.

CONOR DUFFY: The Scott Morrison government is a conservative government, and some in the industry here and the opposition are very pessimistic about what kind of assistance they will get. They have very low expectations. And right in early April, Australia’s education minister, Dan Tehan, and the prime minister, Scott Morrison, basically came out and announced free child care. It turned out that they were working secretly in the background, often late into the night, with their prominent civil servants in Canberra making this scheme.

So for three months, parents stop having to pay for child care. In Australia, we have a system that gives parents very high discounts. But all payments for parents stopped on April 2, and it continued until early July.

Interestingly, the government made a commitment that if it would cancel it, it would notify the industry in the next four or five days. So there are many restless parents in Australia currently waiting to see what happens because free child care is something they think will never happen. This has long been an ambition from the other side of politics in Australia, but, you know, the current Australian government announces it, even if it’s only a short term.

MARTIN: How does the prime minister – how does he refute this? I mean, as you mentioned, I mean, this has been a progressive goal for some time. But, you know, people are reluctant to take it because of the cost. I mean, you have to have a low adult and child ratio – you know, all the safety protocols, all of the above. So how does the Morrison government make an argument for that?

DUFFY: The government argues basically on the basis that it is very important to keep our economy running – that everyone who is considered an important worker needs a place to be able to take their children – that it is also important only for people who are trying to survive in their jobs. And they also make arguments about vulnerable children who really need this care.

MARTIN: Can everyone participate, or is this only for important workers?

DUFFY: Yes, this is for everyone. The childcare center has said that they have some capacity problems to accommodate everyone. But overall, no testing means this – or no income testing, if you like. Children of important workers, hospital staff are prioritized. Next are children who are considered vulnerable. But then after that, basically, yes, it’s open to everyone.

People are still a little reluctant, Michel, to send their children to day care – some for health reasons, some who quit when they lose their jobs at the height of the pandemic. So overall, attendance is only around 65% of the usual.

MARTIN: That’s Conor Duffy from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in Sydney. He told us that the Australian government would soon announce whether its free childcare program would be extended.

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